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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April 2, 2014: Baseball Stories: Field of Dreams and The Brothers K

[With Opening Day upon us, another series on AmericanStudying our national pasttime. This year, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and thinking about what broader American contexts they can help us analyze. And this weekend I’ll highlight some other great writers and works who do the same!]

On divisive decades and histories, and whether baseball can bring us together.
I don’t know that the events and changes of the 1960s necessarily had to divide Americans so fully, or even that they did divide us quite as much as our narratives and histories usually suggest—but the fact that the narratives and histories emphasize the divisions as consistently and thoroughly as they do is itself a telling reminder of the decade’s divisiveness, in our memories if nothing else (and of course there were also many such divisions at the time without question). And while the divisions are often framed, in our 21st century narratives, as between liberals/progressives and conservatives, it seems to me that it would be just as accurate to describe the decade’s divisions (particularly in terms of cultural trends outside of specific social and political movements; things like, y’know, sex, drugs, and rock and roll) as between generations, and thus, much of the time, as between parents and children.
It’s through precisely such parent-child divisions that two prominent late 20th century stories about baseball and the ‘60s portray the era. The (SPOILER) final reveal of the film Field of Dreams (1989) is that its corn-y catchphrase “If you build it, he will come” refers not to the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, but instead to the equally spectral but far more intimate spirit of Ray’s (Kevin Costner) father, with whom Ray had had a 1960s-related falling out that had not been mended at the time of his father’s death. David James Duncan’s epic novel The Brothers K (1992) covers far more ground than Field of Dreams, including its titular homage to Dostoevsky, extended sections set in Canada, India, and Vietnam, and numerous other allusions and histories, but if I were to try to boil it down I would similarly focus on the book’s 1960s-produced divisions between the four Chance brothers and their parents (with dad Hugh a former star pitcher, and baseball thus figuring prominently into all the family members’ stories and relationships).
The film and novel don’t just link the 60s to baseball, however—they make the case, quite overtly and passionately, that baseball can (and, if allowed, will) heal such familial and national divisions. James Earl Jones’ character in Field is particularly obvious in that regard—he begins the film as a formerly idealistic 60s-era writer who has since turned cynical and misanthropic, but who finds his youthful enthusiasm once more through Costner’s baseball field, leading to his famous speech about baseball’s enduring and ongoing unifying American presence and role. Duncan’s novel is more subtle, but in (for example) its framing device—two almost perfectly parallel and quite poignant scenes of fathers, sons, and baseball with which the novel opens and closes—it makes a very similar point to Jones’ speech. So are they right? Can baseball unite us all? Given that our 21st century divisions can tend to make those of the 1960s seem nonexistent by comparison, the question feels more pertinent than ever—and I’ll open it up to you, dear readers. What do you think?
Next baseball story tomorrow,
PS. So again, what do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?


  1. I think it is interesting that Field of Dreams decided to shift the conflict from corporate values vs. family/small town values (as in the novel from which it comes, Shoeless Joe--and that's a highly simplistic reading, I realize) to the generation gap of the 1960s. A much more culturally sanctioned divisiveness, I suppose, and one that fits into the conservative narrative of America in the mid-1980s. Anyway, thanks for the baseball posts! I will have to check out The Brothers K...

  2. That is an interesting and definitely telling shift, I agree. And please do check out Duncan's novel, it's huge but fun and great and I'd love to hear your thoughts!